Wednesday, March 22, 2006

It Came from Netflix! McQ

By 1974, John Wayne, arguably the most iconic American film star ever, had appeared in well over 150 movies during a career spanning nearly fifty years. The vast majority of those were Westerns or military flicks, but he had also played airline pilots, sea captains, a guy who captured wild animals for zoos, a diplomat in Japan, the owner of a circus, a saloonkeeper, a fellow who fought oilrig fires, and even a Roman Centurion, and, rather more infamously, Genghis Khan.

In about 45 years and a hundred and seventy movies, though, he had never played a cop.

He had played many lawmen, of course, but that was in his Westerns. Wayne nearly always starred in period pieces, and it wasn’t until perhaps the mid-‘60s that any significant portion of his films was set in the modern day.

Wayne had been approached in 1971 to play the titular role in Dirty Harry. He declared the ending, where Harry threw away his badge after gunning down the murderous Scorpio, “un-American,” and turned down the part. Frank Sinatra was then attached to the movie, but he was well known for developing cold feet for a project, and he did so again. Eventually the role went to Spaghetti Western icon Clint Eastwood, a much younger actor (thus junking the idea of ‘Dirty’
Harry Callahan being an older cop who found himself in contention with the political realities of the ‘70s), who helped make the film an instant classic.

By this point in his career, Wayne was generally making mid-grade oaters that were the cinematic equivalent of junk food both for himself and his reduced but still loyal Mid-American audience. Older and noticeably, er, less fit, the Duke surrounded himself with a stock company of actors he liked working with, including his son Patrick, as well as old familiar directors like Burt Kennedy and Andrew V. McLaglen (the latter being best known to the bad film community for helming the infamous Joe Don Baker epic Mitchell.)

On a very rare occasion these latter films took an artistic flyer, as when truly shocked audiences actually saw the Duke gunned down in The Cowboys. For the most part, though, this period was marked by studiously unambitious fare that delivered only what the audience expected, no more and no less.

Perhaps hoping to connect with the younger audiences that at this juncture rarely went to see his films, Wayne finally got around to making one just one cop movie, but two, back to back. 1947 saw McQ, and the following year Brannigan, with John Wayne as a very John Wayne-ish Chicago cop unleashed on London.

Cop films were huge in the wake of Dirty Harry, especially films with violent rogue, breaking-all-the-rules sort of protagonists. This is part of the problem with McQ, as it’s nearly as run of the mill as his recent Westerns had been. This despite signs that the film was meant to be an upgrade to those. Most noticeably, the film was assigned to John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, etc.), a noticeable improvement over the journeyman helmers the Duke generally worked with at that time.

The film opens with two uniform cops being assassinated. (Being shot in the ‘70s, these scenes naturally feature large applications of the sort of overly bright neon red stage blood then popular in action movies.) A bit later a detective is shot down as well.

This latter was the long time partner of Detective Lon McQ (Wayne). He figures the killer was hired by powerful hood Manny Santiago (veteran heavy Al Lettieri). He ambushes Santiago and works him over, causing McQ’s cautious and dyspeptic superior Capt. Kosterman (Eddie Albert) to threaten him with suspension.

In response, McQ turns in his badge. He arranges a position with a private eye friend so as to have license to carry a gun, and continues him investigation on his own. In the end, McQ finds that a group of dirty cops are behind the whole thing, and unfortunately the whole thing devolves into a typical “throw a dart to determine who the bad guys are” kind of deal.

McQ’s not a bad film, but it’s not that great, either. It’s a bit flaccid at 111 minutes, and despite the occasional bit of plotting, it just kind of ambles around between fistfights, exchanges of gunfire and car chases (of which there are three, which only serve to establish that Wayne looks a lot less comfortable at the wheel of a speeding car than he does on a horse).

Sturges’ direction is about the same. It gets us where we’re going, but that’s about it. Better is a typically terrific funk score by Sturges’ regular composer Elmer Bernstein. If I had to pick the film’s best element, it would definitely be the music.

The film meanders a bit too much. If the characterization or the dialogue were sharper, then McQ’s seemingly never ending series of conversations (with various cops, hoods, his dead partner’s wife, a potential witness, his own ex-wife and young daughter, a pimp/street stoolie [and that guy he talks with one two separate occasions], etc.) might have held our interest more.

In an attempt to emulate (and of course, surpass) Dirty Harry’s massive trademark .44 Magnum revolver, we get a hilarious scene where McQ is in a gunshop. The owner, an old pal, calls him into the store’s elaborate shooting range, and demonstrates a then rare Ingram submachine gun.

Fitted with a giant silencer (and one of those magical, near endless clips of bullets one always sees in these), this exaggerated piece of armament was actually heavily featured in the poster and other advertisements, as can be seen on the DVD box art. In the end, McQ just scoops the gun and several clips of ammo into a bag and notes that he’s borrowing them, whereupon he carries off the illegal weapons with but a laughably token demurer from the shop owner.

Another problem is that despite his still imposing bulk, the Duke was 67 when he made this, and obviously was a bit long in the tooth for the action sequences. In attempt to cover this, the actresses playing his ex-wife and his (sorta) love interest are about fifteen years younger than him, he has a briefly seen daughter who looks to be in her mid-teens but is played like a Jr. high schooler, and there are even romantic glances between McQ and his partner’s widow, who is played by Star Trek’s Diana Muldaur, who at the time was 36 to Wayne’s 67.

Still, unlike most of today’s movies, at least most everyone in the cast is out of their ‘20s. Meanwhile, the Duke is surrounded by an able cast of character actors, including Arnold, Muldaur (then best known as the girlfriend of TV’s McCloud), Colleen Dewhurst, Clu Gulager, David Huddleston (the M. Emmett Walsh of the ‘60s and ‘70s), Roger E. Mosley (playing the pimp, but better known later as the black sidekick on Magnum P.I.), and even The Creature of the Black Lagoon’s Julie Adams.

In the end, this is little more than a harmless time waster. There’s both better and worse stuff out there, but for those looking to pass a couple of hours with the Duke, this should do the job.


At 10:40 PM, Anonymous Tork_110 said...

Wasn't this the episode of The Next Generation where the Enterprise was green?

At 10:02 AM, Blogger Henry Brennan said...

Oddly enough, I was never a big fan of the Duke. I found his Rooster Cogburn character somewhat entertaining - but that was towards the end of his career. But, then again, I never liked Elvis - so I guess I'm just not an American.

At 12:30 PM, Blogger Ken Begg said...

I'm not a huge Duke fan; I think I missed the generational cut-off by a few years.

However, although I do prefer James Stewart, I do in fact think that Wayne was and is undervalued as an actor. Admittedly, he didn't a great deal of range, but nobody who "couldn't act" can have starred in so many authentically great movies: Stagecoach, Red River, The Quiet Man, Rio Bravo, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. And those are just the great movies. His very good movies number in the dozens.

On top of those, the movie most considered the only true rival Citizen Kane as the Greatest American Film of All Time is The Searchers, and that film is built around Wayne.

And certainly as an American icon, Wayne remains on top, matched only by Marilyn Monroe.

At 2:16 PM, Blogger Henry Brennan said...

Of course, you're right about "The Searchers". For Westerns, I'm more of a Clint Eastwood type. But even so, I'll watch "The Cheyenne Social Club" every single time it comes on.


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